Conclusion

Former Cigar Factory, Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1980, courtesy of National Register of Historic Places Program, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Former Cigar Factory building, Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1980, courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places Program, South Carolina Department of Archives and History. In 1980, Johnson and Wales University held culinary classes in the former Cigar Factory building, and the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1966, Charleston’s Cigar Factory laid off nine hundred workers. In 1973, the factory closed its doors. The decline and eventual shut down of the factory occurred for a number of reasons; including the globalization of the tobacco industry, as well as the decline of tobacco use after a series of class actions suits forced the American Tobacco Company to place warning labels on tobacco products and limit advertising.

<p>Former Cigar Factory, image by Mary Battle, Charleston, South Carolina, June 2013.</p>

Former Cigar Factory building, image by Mary Battle, Charleston, South Carolina, June 2013. The sign advertises a plan to transform the former Cigar Factory building into a development with urban lofts, shops, and offices.

In 1980, Johnson and Wales University began offering culinary arts classes in the former Cigar Factory building. That same year, the City of Charleston placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places. City officials sought to preserve the significance of the building’s architecture as one of the last surviving Victorian-era industrial buildings in Charleston, and to highlight the site’s prominent role in the region’s textile and tobacco industries. The history of the massive labor strike that occurred at the Cigar Factory in the 1940s was not included in their preservation efforts.

The strike nevertheless continued to survive in the memory of local labor and civil rights activists. On September 4, 1995, workers gathered at Agape Ministries Chapel on East Bay Street for a Cigar Factory reunion where they were honored by the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFÉ).

Historic marker for the Cigar Factory, image by Kerry Taylor, Charleston, South Carolina, October 2013.

Historic marker for the Cigar Factory, image by Kerry Taylor, Charleston, South Carolina, October 2013. In April 2013, the Preservation Society of Charleston held a ceremony to unveil a historic marker that commemorates the history of the Cigar Factory, including the 1945-46 strike.

In 2006, Johnson and Wales relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. In mid-2007, Boyd Simpson, CEO of a real estate development company in Atlanta, Georgia, purchased the Cigar Factory for over $20 million. He planned for the building to become a mixed-use space, with offices, retail stores, and private condominiums. In 2008, the Simpson Organization published advertisements that featured cigars in the shape of tools, in an effort to blend the legacy of the factory’s industrial past with the new modern loft development. In May 2009, the Simpson Organization’s financing bank failed, and construction temporarily halted on the Cigar Factory development project, though the potential for future development remains. 

In 2011, the Preservation Society of Charleston collaborated with the Charleston African American Preservation Alliance (CAAPA) to commemorate the history of the Cigar Factory, including the strike. The Cigar Factory became one of five landmark civil rights sites in Charleston to receive historic markers. On April 13, 2013, representatives from the Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled the Cigar Factory’s marker during a public ceremony.

Historic marker for Cigar Factory Strike, image by Kerry Taylor, Charleston, South Carolina, October 2013.

Historic marker for Cigar Factory, image by Kerry Taylor, Charleston, South Carolina, October 2013. In April 2013, the Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a historic marker that commemorates the Cigar Factory Strike in 1945-46. The marker also notes that strikers sang a gospel hymn that would later be transformed into the anthem of the twentieth century civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome."

The Cigar Factory Strike marked a historic moment in civil rights struggles and labor activism in Charleston, South Carolina, and throughout the United States. For five months, working-class laborers forged tenuous but productive alliances across race, gender, and class divisions. Over a decade later, Cigar Factory workers such as Lillie Mae Doster and Isaiah Bennett went on to provide guidance for the 1969 Hospital Strike in Charleston. Their involvement in both the Cigar Factory and Hospital strikes offers insights into the connections between the history of labor organizing and civil rights activism in Charleston. For much of working class Charleston, however, the influential anti-communist and pro-segregation campaigns of the Cold War era effectively erased more widespread organizing ties between the 1940s Cigar Factory Strike and later civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s. Support for labor organizing was seen as communist and anti-American by the 1950s, which could tarnish the emerging national public image of the civil rights movement. Instead, popular understanding of civil rights struggles distilled down to a singular issue—race. Much of the black and white coalitions temporarily developed during of the Cigar Factory Strike remained largely forgotten by generations of Charleston’s working class. Still, while the groundbreaking collaborations of the 1940s proved short-lived, recent studies of the Cigar Factory Strike suggest that the organizational roots of this strike were an important precursor in Charleston to the city's civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.